“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way”- Frank Smith

The world is shrinking in every sense. I mean literally. Haven’t you heard of continents that drifted away, are now coming closer to each other. We are becoming more multi-cultural, inclusive, learning and interacting with people around the world. But when it comes to using language at home, we are still confused.

Should I just stick to English? Will I confuse my child if I speak my native language, my husband’s native language and English? He already has a language delay. Wouldn’t it hamper my child’s language development if I speak more than one language? These are just some of the questions I get from parents who are in a dilemma of talking two languages at home. 

Well, my answer backed by research is a graceful and resounding NO! However, today I take full responsibility and opportunity to bust the myths. The stories we have all been telling ourselves, including well meaning professionals like me.

Bilingualism is our ability to fluently use two languages. There is no better place to advocate for bilingualism/multilingualism than Dubai, because we interact with our fellow expats every day. Being a second generation expat, I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that, as millennial’s we speak almost three languages fluently. I learnt my native language from my parents, English from school and other languages merely by watching movies and reading sub titles. It just shows our brains are wired to learn more than one language.

There is an interesting research done by Jacques Mehler, where French babies younger than five days old would listen to phrases spoken by different people, both male and female. The only thing common to all the phrases were they were in Dutch. However, in between the recording, they added a few words in Japanese. The babies were fitted with pacifiers to detect their responses, because four day old babies wouldn’t be able to show us any overt responses. It gives me goosebumps to even think or write about this. The moment these little beings heard the Japanese words in between the Dutch language, they started sucking more with their pacifiers. Imagine their baby brains could detect the change of sounds in a different language. So, truly we are all citizens of the world.

I don’t expect others to get as excited as me, because the workings of the brain and language makes me want to give a standing ovation to my creator.

Bilingual brains are better at self- regulation and executive functioning. Self- regulation means being flexible and controlling one’s behavior and emotions. Executive functioning means paying attention, learning to prioritize, organize tasks and get things done.

Studies done by Professors Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert in 1962, provides an explosion of literature stating the positive impact of bilingual brains. Most importantly, the bilingual brain is constantly monitoring its appropriate responses to input. Have you ever wondered how children respond to their grandparents in their native language, and can instantly switch to another language while meeting a friend from school.

A recent research done in 2010, they selected books that were available in children’s home language (in this case, Spanish) and in English. Parents were asked to read the books in their native language. Meanwhile, teachers read the same books in English. To sum up, language skills of these children in the English- speaking environment increased in frequency and complexity. 

Having bombarded you all with all the research, I want to conclude with the following:

  • As a parent, you should be an expert and provide a good language model at home. Which simply means, I don’t speak fluent Italian. I know a few words which I painstakingly learnt during one of my trips to Italy. It did come handy though. Arrivederci! If I tried to teach Italian to my daughter, it would be a complete mess, because I am not an expert in it. However, I am an expert in my native language which is Malayalam. I have been speaking and providing a stimulating environment for Malayalam and English at home. So now, my daughter can easily understand and sometimes switch between two languages at home. More than anything, I believe its important to know and understand where you come from. And there is no better way, than being able to speak, interact and enjoy the conversations in your native language. We tend to express ourselves on a more emotional level.
  • Go ahead and speak your native language at home, even though your child has a language delay. Yep! Read that sentence twice! That’s what research says. It doesn’t matter if your child has a delay or not. Provide a good language model at home. To make it easier or less taxing. Let’s say that, schedule a time at home, where everyone speaks your native language. For e.g. After 6 pm, we only speak Arabic at home and we go to bed reading bedtime stories in Arabic.
  • Get books in your native language and read them to your children.
  • Encourage and reinforce every attempt made by your child to communicate using their native language.
  • If parents consciously decide to stick to one language at home, then their decision is respected.

I would highly recommend these books for parents and everyone who is interested in understanding the enchantress that sits between our ears with a billion wands that wire and fire to create magic. Expecto Patronum! I am referring to our brain. I did get a bit ‘Harry Pottered’ away here.

Imagine being in a foreign country, where no one speaks your native language. You are struggling to communicate and suddenly you hear someone speak your language. That joy is indescribable.

In a world, where people are being displaced from their lands, the only thing that brings and binds communities together is their native language. So preserve it and teach it.

Sources:

  • Thirty Million Words by Dana Suskind MD #Danasuskind
  • The Secret Life of the Mind by Mariano Sigman #MarianoSigman
  • Speech Language Therapy for Literacy by Bilinguistics

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